I saw this new thing called television,” Rex Humbard later recalled, “and I said, ‘That’s it.’ God has given us that thing … the most powerful force of communication, to take the gospel into … every state in the Union.” The year was 1952, and Humbard was the first evangelical preacher to launch a successful television ministry out of his church in Akron, Ohio.

Evangelical preachers had taken to radio with gusto in the 1920s and 1930s. The leap from radio to television, however, was huge, and the pioneer evangelists who used the medium in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s faced enormous challenges.

Mainline Opposition

Most religious programming of the early 1950s (with the exception of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s uniquely successful teaching program) was sponsored by the National Council of Churches. The programs were produced on low budgets and presented on Sundays in free time given by the networks to satisfy a public service requirement. The NCC was careful to see that none of the free time fell into the hands of evangelicals. In the early 1950s, Billy Graham purchased time to air an interview program, but few ever watched it.

Oral Roberts did see the Graham programs and was more and more convinced that “the devil must not steal this great medium from God’s people.” In 1954 Roberts and his wife, Evelyn, filmed a series of 30-minute studio programs patterned on his radio program, and they flopped. Roberts was subdued but not vanquished. He remained convinced that “more souls can be reached through TV than through any other means.” What was needed, Roberts believed, was to capture on camera the charged atmosphere of the revival tent.

Two evangelical revivals were underway in the United States in the 1950s. The first was the evangelical ...

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